THE HISTORY OF BURNFOOT
There are several strange, and as yet still unexplained, ‘cup and ring’ carved stones visible on the walks surrounding the holiday cottages that suggest very early settlement of this part of the Kingdom of Northumbria. The discovery of stone axes as well as burial mounds at nearby Low Trewhitt has certainly proven settlement here from at least the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Beyond that, evidence suggests that more people lived around Burnfoot in medieval times than in the present day. The adjacent village of Netherton is identified in the Domesday Book as one of the ten towns of Coquetdale, meaning there were more houses in the village then than there are now. Perhaps residents fled from the battleground of the constant warfare between England and Scotland – not all were fortunate enough to be able to build fortified tower and bastle houses, of which many survive to this day in the immediate vicinity.
In more peaceful, post-medieval times the landscape was given over to farming. Elegant country houses were built, such as neighbouring Trewhitt Hall, and in the 1800s Lord Armstrong created his extraordinary Victorian House – Cragside. Near to Burnfoot, Cragside was the wonder of its age as the first house in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity. It has the largest sandstone rock garden in Europe and is a magical place of towering trees, massive rocks and tumbling water. Today, the house, gardens and estate are owned and managed by The National Trust (a visit is a must for every guest staying at Burnfoot).
It was re-discovered only recently that Burnfoot was formerly part of Cragside Estate, and it is in fact a Victorian model farm created by Lord Armstrong as a showcase for his pioneering engineering methods. Burnfoot was one of the first farms in the world to be powered by a (double vortex) water turbine.
The current owners are the Stienlet family, who still run their local architectural practice founded over a century ago by the celebrated Belgian architect, Pascal J Stienlet. During the works to convert the farm into holiday cottages, when the concrete was removed from the modern hard-standing to the north of the holiday cottages, the current owners re-discovered the turbine chamber. Initially, a few finely cut stone stairs were found leading down into a hole in the ground, but any further progress was blocked by two large steel girders and an accumulation of concrete and assorted farm detritus. With the aid of some machinery to clear the rubbish, and some pot-holing skill to negotiate a way past the girders, it was eventually possible to walk down an exquisitely constructed circular dressed stone cantilevered staircase into the chamber that formerly housed the turbine. The extremely high quality of construction even in this private area is typical of Lord Armstrong.
The turbine itself has sadly disappeared; however the run-off channel into Scrainwood Burn can still be seen clearly, along with several stalactites and stalagmites that have formed in the many decades since it was last used. The turbine chamber is being carefully restored by Burnfoot’s current owners, with the full support of the National Trust, and a feasibility study has been commissioned to investigate the possibility of powering the holiday cottages with a brand-new water turbine in the exact same location as designed by the farm’s illustrious former owner.
The millpond created by Lord Armstrong to supply the turbine is just a five-minute walk from the holiday cottages; it is worth visiting for the chance to see one of the resident kingfishers. The fish pass alongside the millpond, created to allow the huge numbers of spawning salmon and sea trout to climb past the sluice gates, is now Grade II Listed and has been completely restored already.
Burnfoot was a working farm until very recently, the steading being used for grain drying and storage as well as housing livestock. However, the buildings were not large enough to cope with modern farming methods and so in 2005 all farming activity ceased. Many of the surrounding fields were planted with trees and permission was granted to convert the steading for residential use. Today, with Netherton’s close proximity to Northumberland National Park, tourism is becoming the prominent industry with visitor numbers increasing every year.
More information about the history of the holiday cottages can be found on an information board at the mill pond, and we strongly recommend all of our guests to spend a day at Cragside House, not just to get lost in the rhododendron labyrinth and adventure playground, but to see the original hydro-electricity plants in action. There’s even a working model of the turbine used at Burnfoot!